Friday, October 31, 2014

Opinion: Puritans, then profiteers over Día de los Muertos - QEPD

My guest contributor today is the one and only Flo Hernandez-Ramos. Flo gave an interview to and wrote a column for Colorado Public Radio about Día de los Muertos. She kindly consented to sharing her opinion piece with La Bloga's readers. I remember when Flo and only a few others publicly celebrated Day of the Dead here in Denver, years ago. She wasn't the first one to do so but she was among the first to help make the day a very public event. She set up an annual altar at radio station KUVO, where she worked, helped organize displays at art galleries and other venues, and patiently explained the true meaning of the celebration to anyone who wanted to listen.

Also - recent losses to the literary and music communities that La Bloga serves.  

Opinion: Denverites were puritans, then profiteers over Día de los Muertos

By Flo Hernandez-Ramos Oct 27, 2014

Listen -- Audio: CPR's Chloe Veltman talks to Flo Hernandez Ramos about Dia de los Muertos

A Día de los Muertos altar in memory of Teodora Hernández and José de Jesus Hernández
(Photo: Courtesy of Flo Hernandez-Ramos)

It’s hard to go anywhere in Denver at this time of year without seeing fancifully-decorated sugar skulls peering out among Halloween decorations in the windows of bars and stores.

The candy skulls (“calaveras”) are a core image of Día de los Muertos, a two-day commemoration on Nov. 1 and 2 each year of those who have passed away.

Long history in Denver

The annual Mexican holiday that sees death as part of the circle of life has been around in Denver for as long as there have been Mexicans living in Denver, which is to say, for a long, long time. Unlike the festivities in Mexico, where entire villages turned their cemeteries into fiesta venues, in the United States Día de los Muertos was always a private, family celebration.

Paper mâché skull by Los Ramirez Castaneda

(Photo: Courtesy of Flo Hernandez-Ramos)

But since the early 1980s, in line with the growth of the Mexican population in this country and the desire of Mexican Americans to celebrate their cultural roots, the holiday has moved into the mainstream -- not just in Denver but throughout the U.S.

Día de los Muertos originated in Mexico about 4,000 years ago among the indigenous populations. It bears some similarity to Memorial Day in the United States, in the tradition of people putting flowers on the graves of loved ones.

Día de los Muertos decorations are far more elaborate than those associated with Memorial Day. People festoon graves and altars with food, flowers and folk art depicting skulls and skeletons from all walks of life.

There is nothing ghoulish about the holiday. But that’s not how Día de los Muertos was perceived when it was first introduced in the Denver metro area.

In the early 1980s, Denver artist Patricio Cordova proposed a Día de los Muertos art exhibit to The Pirate Contemporary Art Oasis, a Northside collective at West 36th Avenue and Navajo Street.

The Pirates were all Anglos, but committed to thinking beyond their own cultures.

“People embraced the idea because of its edginess,” Pirates leader Phil Bender says. “The Pirates’ logo was a skull and crossbones, so there was an affinity with the sugar skulls and the folk art of Día de los Muertos.”

But the broader Denver community was not unanimously willing to embrace the Mexican holiday.

Even though movies like “Bloodbath at the House of Death” were popular in 1984, Latinos and non-Latinos alike were squeamish about Dia de los Muertos.

To them, it was macabre.

“People in the U.S. were willing to see people being killed on the big screen,” says Mercedes Hernández, program director of Denver’s KUVO jazz radio station in the mid-1980s. “But they didn’t want to think about death and its personal effect on them.”

From macabre to franchise

How things have changed.

The holiday is now so popular in “los Uniteds” that it has become a franchise.

Safeway sells marshmallow skull lollipops. Disney tried to trademark the phrase “Día de los Muertos.” World Market offers a line of Día de los Muertos decorations, plates, party favors, wine and beer. And the Denver Botanic Gardens is hosting its first Calavera Ball on Nov. 1.

But the commercialization of the Mexican holiday in mainstream U.S. culture today threatens to destroy the essential meaning of Día de los Muertos.

Skulls painted by children for Cherry Creek Library Calavera Contest
(Photo: Courtesy of Flo Hernandez-Ramos)

At this point, the Mexican holiday has become almost indistinct from Halloween, with people blending Día de los Muertos and Halloween festivities together.

For example, the animated film Book of Life by Guillermo del Toro, a story based on Día de los Muertos, is marketed as a Halloween adventure. And in Colorado Springs, the Cottonwood Center for the Arts is hosting a Halloween/Día de los Muertos celebration on Oct. 31.

It opens with a zombie dance and offers henna tattoos, belly dancing and the construction of mini-altars. And not everyone is happy about it.

“It’s a prime example of the disrespect and the unconscious attempt to usurp another culture's holidays,” wrote artist Jerry Vigil on his Team Muertos Facebook page .

Similarly, the meaning of Halloween also seems to have been lost in the scuffle between culture and commerce.

Halloween has its roots in an ancient Gaelic belief that on Oct. 31 the boundaries between the world of the living and that of the dead overlap and souls roam the earth.

Scottish and Irish immigrants introduced the holiday to the United States in the 1800s. Beginning in the 1900s, Halloween became a more commercial enterprise through the production of costumes, decorations and the custom of trick-or-treating.

In more recent times, the popular U.S. holiday is a billion-dollar industry of ghouls and gore. And Día de los Muertos may be headed down that same slippery, bloody slope.

One can argue about the “true meaning” of Día de los Muertos. For some it is the honoring of loved ones who have passed; for others it may mean winning first prize at a costume contest as a calavera. But for everyone, the sugar skull is here to stay.

Flo Hernández-Ramos was CEO of Denver jazz radio KUVO for 23 years and recently retired as the executive director of the Latino Public Radio Consortium. 

Flo's 2014 Altar - A Work In Progress



We note the recent passing of two pioneering Chicano writers:

Juan A. Contreras: an El Paso educator, Chicano poet and writer well known in literary circles throughout the Southwest. Contreras was 64 when he died on October 20. According to the El Paso Times, Contreras participated in the University of Southern California's historic Flor y Canto literary festival in 1973, a three-day event featuring dozens of emerging Mexican-American poets and writers. He often lectured in El Paso and Juárez and throughout the Southwest.

"We must have the same dream with a vision that one day our children will be judged not by the accent of their tongue, but by the creativity in their expression and the power of their voice," Contreras once said, referring to Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" civil rights speech.

Juan Estevan Arellano:  a Chicano writer who tried to showcase the unique culture of New Mexico, Arellano gained international acclaim in 1994 when he won the Premio Nacional de Literatura José Fuentes Mares prize in Mexico for his 1994 novel, Incencio.

It was a ground-breaking work because it was written in New Mexico Spanish — a fusion of Spanish and indigenous languages birthed out of the region's isolation from exploration to frontier days, said Vanessa Fonseca, a University of Wyoming Latino Studies professor. As posted by My San Antonio,  Arellano's wife, Elena, said he died at the family's home in Embudo, New Mexico, from heart failure on October 29. He was 67.

We also express our condolences to the family and friends of Jimmy Trujillo, long-time volunteer DJ at radio station KUVO, esteemed musician, and latin jazz expert. Jimmy died in Denver on October 29 - he was 52. His memory and music live on in the hearts of many who listened to Jimmy in several different bands, on the air, or at numerous events as a speaker and teacher.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good words, Flo and Manuel, especially about society bastardizing what El Día celebrates. The Aztecas had/mexicanos have a more realistic appreciation of death, minus the Catholic Church's imposition of Euro attitudes. Thanks for clarifying what El Día is truly about. RudyG